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Threatened Bluebird Making A Comeback In Central Florida

Sylvia K. Beauchamp

Findlay Pate (941) 735-1314
John Maddox (941) 773-6355

ONA—In the mid-1800s, poet Henry Thoreau penned “The bluebird carries the sky on his back.” Back then, and even in the early 1900s, the small, colorful songbirds were commonly seen along roadsides, fields, parks and pastures. But most people today have never seen a bluebird, because by the middle of this century, bluebird populations had shrunk to one-tenth of their original numbers.

With the gentle birds now in jeopardy of becoming an endangered species, University of Florida researchers and Audubon Society volunteers are establishing artificial nesting boxes on agricultural land in Central Florida as part of the recovery efforts for the Eastern bluebird.

UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is providing rural land area in Hardee County for trails of bluebird nesting boxes in hopes that they will thrive around the cattle pastures and increase their numbers in Florida, said Findlay Pate, center director of the UF/IFAS Range Cattle Research and Education Center in Ona, which is located 40 miles east of Bradenton.

“Bluebird numbers are decreasing, and the species could become endangered over time. The population is becoming critically low, due to such things as the introduction of starlings into the United States, which steal the nesting sites of bluebirds,” Pate said.

“By providing nesting boxes around pastures, we are giving bluebirds a place to nest, raise their young, and increase their population. And in working cooperatively with the Audubon Society, we can determine the true impact of Florida cattle ranches on environmental quality.”

Over the years, numbers of bluebirds and other cavity-nesters such as purple martins and chickadees have plunged because of the introduction of aggressive bird species such as sparrows and starlings, which play havoc with bluebirds by killing them and stealing their nests. Other problems include increased urbanization and the loss of natural nesting sites when dead trees and wooden fence posts, often used by bluebirds as nesting cavities, are removed or replaced with metal fence posts, Pate said.

The ranch environment appears to be ideal habitat for bluebirds because they thrive in open country, needing shortgrass areas and nearby trees for spying and catching insects. Because of the desirable pasturelands at the research center, volunteers from the Hardee County chapter of the Audubon Society approached Pate about establishing the first bluebird trail of man-made nesting boxes.

With the pilot project in Ona now in its third year, Pate said farmers and other land owners should be encouraged to install their own trails of bluebird nesting boxes. Besides inspiring poets with their music, serenity and family devotion (they are faithful to one mate, seldom picking a new one unless their first nest fails or the mate dies), bluebirds are helpful to farmers and gardeners because their diet consists almost entirely of insects and grubs in the spring and summer.

“Not only will increased populations of bluebirds benefit the environment and those people who enjoy bird watching, but cattle producers also can demonstrate how they provide an excellent habitat for bluebirds and many other bird species,” Pate said.

John Barrows, an Audubon Society volunteer and retired science teacher in Hardee County, said the mild-mannered bluebird that once was common in small towns and people’s yards has declined across the country perhaps 90 percent in the past 50 years.

As part of the bluebird recovery efforts in Florida, Barrows builds artificial nesting sites and maintains the bluebird trail at the UF/IFAS research center, monitoring eggs and numbers of hatchlings weekly during nesting season. As bluebirds re-establish in the area and their numbers increase, the researchers hope they will spread to other areas of the state.

“Cattlemen in rural areas like this can indirectly benefit by providing habitat where bluebirds can find insects that may be harmful to pastures. We wanted to use the UF/IFAS property for the initial bluebird trail because it provided the desirable habitat and because it was a protected area, secure from vandalism to boxes,” Barrows said. “We’re helping bluebirds mostly out of an aesthetic appreciation, because of their beauty, gentle nature and soft, melodic voice. They are part of the natural scene, part of the web of life. If they’re not there, it leaves a vacant spot.”

Barrows and retired vocational agriculture teacher and school administrator John Maddox began the project at Ona with 10 boxes. Now they’re monitoring 17 boxes, and so far this year, 15 boxes have had nests, an 88 percent success rate that has produced 133 eggs, 81 nestlings and 69 bluebird fledglings. These figures are a marked increase from results of the two previous years. In 1995, 10 boxes produced 26 bluebirds, and in 1996, 16 boxes produced 65 bluebirds.

Maddox, president of the Hardee County Audubon Society and a director for the state society, said that if provided with proper homes, bluebirds will nest an average of twice, and as much as three times, a year, producing four or five eggs at each nesting. And as a migratory bird, winter visitors can often be spotted alongside the permanent, Florida-resident bluebirds.

“At one time, we couldn’t hardly find bluebirds, even in rural Hardee County,” Maddox said. “But bluebirds are part of the native ecosystem in Florida and around the country. We want to ensure that they continue to exist, as they are a part of the natural fauna.”